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North America, United States, Alaska, Denali National Park and Preserve Mountaineering Summary, 1986

Denali National Park and Preserve Mountaineering Summary, 1986. Record numbers of mountaineers, unusual weather patterns, light winter snow pack and volcanic eruptions set the scene for an interesting mountaineering season in the Alaska Range. The 1985-86 winter was extremely mild with many sunny days and few major winter storms. As a result, snow accumulation was far below normal for both Talkeetna and the entire Alaska Range. During the spring, Mount Augustine volcano, located in the Cook Inlet approximately 125 miles southwest of Anchorage, erupted. Ash from the eruption was carried by prevailing winds and deposited throughout much of south central Alaska, including parts of the Alaska Range. As the already reduced snowpack melted during the spring, the grey ash layer was eventually exposed. The ash absorbed more heat from the sun which further accelerated the snow melt. The surface of the glaciers melted with an exaggerated cup-shaped surface pattern, making ski-equipped aircraft landings difficult. By early July, the 7200-foot Base Camp airstrip was unusable. Since a number of expeditions were still on the mountain, special authorization was given for the air-taxi operators to land at 9700 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier to pick up those remaining expeditions. No drop-offs were permitted. There was one winter ascent attempted in 1986. Dave Johnston, a member of the first successful group winter ascent in 1967, made a solo attempt on the West Buttress which included a ski approach from his cabin in the Trapper Creek area. Dave reached Windy Comer (13,200 feet) before he frostbit the toes he froze during his first winter ascent. He skied all the way back to his cabin without assistance. The High Latitude Research Project was not funded this season, but a short research project was conducted by several of the project’s medical personnel in conjunction with the U.S. Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center. A group of military volunteers were flown directly to 14,200 feet where the medical personnel studied the effect of the drug Decadron upon the unacclimatized men. The project lasted approximately 1½ weeks. Afterward, the Mountaineering Rangers staffed the camp for the remainder of the season. Once again, the transportation of the camp to and from the mountain was provided by the U.S. Army, 242nd Aviation Company, Fort Wainwright, Alaska. The National Park Service conducted three, three-week expeditions on Mount McKinley. All were on the West Buttress route. We continue to emphasize environmentally sound expeditionary climbing and sanitation practices. In addition, mountaineers are encouraged to conduct their own evacuations when ever possible. During emergencies, the 14,200-foot medical/rescue camp provides an excellent base from which rescue operations can be staged. Possibly the greatest operational benefit derived from the camp is the improved communications with other mountaineering expeditions and the Talkeetna Ranger Station. We are more reliably able to determine if a rescue is really needed, and if so, the urgency and the appropriate level of the response. Two Americans and one New Zealander were issued citations for guiding without a permit. In 1986, new all-time records were set for the number of persons attempting to climb Mount McKinley. 1978 = 539; 1979 = 533; 1980 = 659; 1981 = 612; 1982 = 696; 1983 = 709; 1984 = 695; 1985 = 645; 1986 = 755.

Interesting Statistics. Success Rate: 406 (54%) of those attempting the summit of Mount McKinley were successful. 7 (33%) of those attempting Mount Foraker were successful. Acute Mountain Sickness: 105 (14%) had symptoms; of these 58 (8%) were mild, 30 (4%) were moderate and 16 (2%) were severe. Frostbite: 41 (5%) reported some degree of frostbite. None of these required hospitalization. West Buttress route: 597 (79%) of the climbers were on the popular West Buttress route. Guiding: More climbers were guided on McKinley than ever before. 319 (42%) of the climbers were with one of the authorized guiding companies. The overall success of these groups was 61%. Most of these were on the West Buttress, but other guided trips were attempted on the Muldrow, Cassin and South Buttress routes. Foreign climbers: 187 (25%) of the climbers were from foreign countries. 23 nationalities were represented: Australia 2, Austria 16, Brazil 2, Canada 14, Chile 1, Czechoslovakia 6, Finland 1, France 9, Great Britain 14, Iceland 5, Italy 9, Japan 24, Korea 10, Liechtenstein 6, Netherlands 4, New Zealand 1, Norway 2, Rumania 1, South Vietnam 1, Soviet Union 9, Spain 4, Switzerland 12, West Germany 33. Temperatures: On July 10, a party reported the summit temperature to be 30°F! For the second year, a minimum recording thermometer was left at 17,200 feet on the West Buttress route. It recorded a low reading of -58°F for the previous winter. This is the exact reading recorded the previous winter. During the 1987 season, the Mountaineering Rangers will place a second minimum recording thermometer to check the accuracy of these readings. Record number during a given week: A new all-time high of 308 climbers were on the slopes of Mount McKinley for the week ending May 20.

Accidents. The season began on a tragic note when one of the first expeditions lost two members in a crevasse fall on April 20. A four-person French team was ascending the Kahiltna Glacier at about 9000 feet. The team was traveling up the west side of the glacier (the “normal” route was further to the east). The two members involved in the accident had decided to travel side-by-side with their ropes attached to a single sled so they could both pull the sled. A large snowbridge collapsed under them. Both were killed in the resulting 75-foot fall. During the investigation, it was determined that the two had used standard glacier travel techniques during the first two days of travel, but had decided to forego the safety of roped travel for the convenience of pulling the sled. The survivors said the safety aspect of the decision was discussed, but the victims felt there was no crevasse hazard. One of the victims was a professional mountain guide in his homeland.

In the middle of May, a four-person expedition began a descent of the South Buttress from their high point of 15,000 feet. Conditions were icy and one person would belay from above while the others descended. At the end of one of these belays, the rope became tangled in the belayer’s ice tools. He unclipped from his anchors to clear the rope. While he was unprotected, the ice knob he was standing on sheared off. He sustained a tumbling fall for the entire rope-length and then another 150 feet until the rope stopped the fall. No intermediate anchors were placed by those descending. During the fall, his crampons caught in the ice severely injuring his ankle. The party lowered the victim to a saddle at 12,500 feet, but felt they could not safely proceed further and requested, via CB radio, a rescue. The victim was flown off the mountain via helicopter. In mid May, a member of a large German party was skiing from 15,000 feet to the 14,200-foot basin on the West Buttress route. During the descent he fell and severely twisted his knee. He was flown from 14,200 feet via fixed wing aircraft at his own expense. In mid June, four members of a Swiss team were camped at the 14,200-foot basin on the West Buttress. They had just completed a carry to 17,200 feet. Weather was deteriorating, everyone was tired from his long day’s carry, so they retired to their tents (two men to each of two tents) to cook dinner. The storm continued throughout the night and into the next day. It broke later that afternoon. Two left their tent and noticed the other tent was sagging. There was no response from within the tent. When they opened the tent to investigate, they discovered the two young men dead. Investigation showed the two died from carbon monoxide poisoning from their butane cook stove. Their tent was made in Europe of a coated nylon with a full coverage rainfly (including a complete vestibule). The roof vents were closed and snow had either been packed around the bottom of the fly or had slid off the tent during the storm. Thus, there had been no allowance made for fresh air exchange. It appears the two had prepared and eaten dinner the first night, then were in the process of cooking soup when they were overcome by carbon monoxide. The survivors stated the group had discussed the importance of providing ventilation while operating the stoves prior to the accident. Also in the middle of June, two members of a seven-member Korean team began a rapid ascent of the Cassin Ridge. One of the team members began to develop a headache at 16,500 feet but decided to continue on to their high camp at 19,700 feet which they reached on day four. Here, the headache became severe, so they decided to rest the following day (day 5). On day 6, they broke camp but discovered both were too weak to ascend and one was showing definite signs of cerebral edema. They felt descent was impossible because they carried only a single rope. On the 7th day they began broadcasting for help, but the language barrier prevented their message from being understood until day 9. What followed was three days of one of the most logistically complex rescues to be conducted during the past five years.Volunteers were selected from climbers already acclimatized who were either on the mountain or who had just come off. The team was flown to 14,200 feet (weather prohibited the planned drop off at 17,200 feet). Of the four members in the advance team, two contracted altitude illness by the time they reached 17,200 feet. The remaining two were able to reach the summit ridge, descend the upper Cassin and assist the two Koreans back to the summit ridge. Fortunately, the Koreans were able to make the ascent with minimal assistance. Once at the ridge, the Korean suffering from CE collapsed, became comatose and did not regain consciousness for the remainder of the rescue. The team descended to 18,000 feet, where they spent the night with a large guided party. The following day, they met the support rescue team which lowered the comatose Korean down Denali Pass to 17,200 feet where he was eventually helicoptered to a hospital. The remaining Korean and the rescuers descended to 14,200 feet and were flown back to Talkeetna. The entire rescue took only three days. No one was injured and both Koreans recovered from their ordeal. The success of this mission must be attributed to a supreme effort on the part of the rescuers and a great deal of good luck.

Trends and items of special concern: Percentage of foreigners requiring rescues: Ten persons required some sort of organized rescue effort during 1986. Four of the evacuations were body recoveries. Nine of the ten (90%) were mountaineers from foreign countries. Even though foreign mountaineers comprised only 25% of all climbers, they accounted for 90% of all Search and Rescue incidents. All four of the fatalities were foreigners. In 1985, foreigners accounted for 19% of the climbers, but 50% of the fatalities (there were two) and 40% of the SAR incidents. In 1984, foreigners accounted for 28% of the climbers, but 100% (there were two) of the fatalities and 57% of the SAR incidents. For 1987,we are planning to expand the slide/tape mountaineering orientation to include French and Spanish in addition to the German, Japanese and English versions which are currently available. The information brochure Mountaineering will also be available soon in the same languages. It is difficult to state the exact causes of the disparity in SAR incidents between the foreign and American climbers. I believe that the majority of foreign mountaineers are leaving Talkeetna for their climb with a fairly good grasp on what the National Park Service recommends pertaining to high altitude, cold and crevasse related hazards. It seems more likely the higher accident rate is a result of many of the foreigner’s seeming willingness to accept a higher level of risk in their mountaineering. Year after year, we see foreign parties traveling unroped on the lower glaciers or traveling Denali Pass without ropes and ice axes, or making rapid ascents which result in altitude illness. Clearly, for the majority of these groups, they have made a conscious decision to adopt specific techniques even after extended discussions with the mountaineering rangers in Talkeetna. Solo ascents: We have been seeing increased interest in solo ascents. During 1986, there were approximately six different solo ascents attempted. A number of other climbers arrived in Talkeetna with the intention of climbing solo but were convinced otherwise by the mountaineering rangers. It is clear that the majority of the persons attempting solo climbs have made no allowance for nor have given much thought to their safety while traveling the heavily crevassed lower glaciers. Carbon monoxide poisoning: In 1985, cooking in poorly ventilated areas such as tents with all doors and vents closed, or old ice-glazed igloos and snow caves caused two serious cases of CO poisoning. In 1986, two young Swiss mountaineers died of CO poisoning while cooking in a tent. It is very likely that mild cases of CO poisoning are a contributing factor to Acute Mountain Sickness especially pulmonary edema. CO poisoning might very well be a greater threat to mountaineers using the new tents with full coverage water-proof rain flies especially those with vestibules which encourage cooking in the tent while the coated vestibule can be kept closed. It is imperative for personal health and safety to allow adequate ventilation when cooking with stoves in enclosed areas. For more information, or to request mountaineering information or registration forms, please contact me, South District Mountaineering Ranger, Talkeetna Ranger Station, P.O. Box 327, Talkeetna, Alaska 99676.

Robert R. Seibert, National Park Service

DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE 1986 MOUNTAINEERING SUMMARY

Mount McKinley

Expeditions

Climbers

Successful Climbers



West Buttress

111

361

181



West Buttress (Guided)

30

236

152



Muldrow

3

9

4



Muldrow (Guided)

3

40

22



West Rib

12

38

27



Cassin

10

28

15



Cassin (Guided)

2

9

3



South Buttress

3

9

0



South Buttress (Guided)

2

18

0



East Buttress

1

3

2



Messner Couloir

2

4

0





179

755

406 (54%)



Mount Foraker

5

21

7



Mount Hunter

10

27

2



Mount Huntington

1

2

0



Little Switzerland

4

13

N/A



Mount Dicky

2

7

7



Mount Barrille

5

16

15



Mount Dan Beard

3

9

U/K



Moose's Tooth

11

34

14



Broken Tooth

1

2

U/K



Kitchatna Spires

1

2

2



Miscellaneous Ski Trips

15

70

N/A





58

173





NOTE: Since registration is required only for Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker climbs, statistics for other climbs represent those climbers who voluntarily checked in with the Mountaineering Rangers. Other climbs, especially in the area of the Ruth Glacier, are likely to have occurred.